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Rich Lowry: Union drama at the Met

Posted: July 16, 2014 - 3:12pm

The fat lady will sing — but only in strict keeping with the work rules set out by the American Guild of Musical Artists.

The Metropolitan Opera has a labor problem. Personnel expenses account for $200 million of the financially struggling Met’s $327 million budget.

In the interest of survival in an era more attuned to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” than “Le Nozze di Figaro,” the Met wants to reduce its labor costs by 16 percent by getting the unions to accept common-sensical work rules and less generous pension and health benefits. The unions say no and accuse the Met of waging war on their families.

The storied but precarious institution could see its next season disrupted in the labor discord. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, warns that without union flexibility, the very existence of the world-famous, 130-year-old opera is at risk.

Well, if worst came to worst, at least the Met’s singers and musicians could make a go of it at the New York City Opera. No, wait, it shut its doors for the last time last year.

It doesn’t take an opera aficionado to realize that the 21st century isn’t the 19th, and opera is an embattled art form. Unfortunately, the Met is locking horns with a force, the unions, that has proven adept at helping to drive struggling industries into the ground.

A New York Times editorial recently noted that orchestra members, who on average make $200,000 a year, get 16 weeks off with pay. The American Federation of Musicians Local 802 shot back that it is really only 10 weeks of guaranteed time off with pay. Touché.

Under the current rules, the base pay for chorus members, who also make on average $200,000 a year, covers four performances a week. The members get paid extra for rehearsals — even if they haven’t sung in four performances that week.

They also earn overtime for singing in any opera over four hours, which makes Richard Wagner the best thing that ever happened to a Met singer’s paycheck. His “Parsifal” clocks in at five hours, and wasn’t performed last season, in part because of the extra labor costs.

Who knew that the Met is not so much an opera house as the artistic equivalent of the fiscally unsustainable, union-dominated state of Illinois? The Met doesn’t need Peter Gelb; it needs Chris Christie.

The union case against its nemesis Gelb is that he’s a spendthrift, and there’s something to it. He spent $169,000 this season on a poppy-field set for Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” Let’s concede that half-naked people moving dreamily through a fake poppy field is not everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s further concede that spending $169,000 on poppies is extravagant. But the Met’s aggrieved musicians might not have noticed: Opera is an extravagant art form. If they wanted stripped-down and no-nonsense, they could have gone into folk music.

Gelb dropped almost $20 million a few years ago on a production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle so ambitious that more than $1 million had to be spent on reinforcing the stage to support the 45-ton set. If the production underperformed at the box office, it was on a scale worthy of the Met and was funded by a gift. Only unions would complain that an opera manager is spending too much on opera and not enough on overtime pay and pension benefits.

Given the head winds in the culture, what the Met accomplishes is extraordinary — more than 200 performances a season, in front of 800,000 people in the house and another couple of million in broadcasts in movie theaters. It is working to preserve a demanding art form that represents one of the high points of Western civilization. It would be a shame for the ages if it were brought low, not just by indifference without, but by shortsighted union grubbiness within.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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jford
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jford 07/17/14 - 08:54 am
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Leave it to Lowry to misrepresent the facts,

the Met is trying to cut worker pay to all workers involved, 16 union contracts are up and the Met wants to cut worker pay nearly 20%, they want to up the cost of healthcare, cut pensions, because the general manager increased spending beyond what their endowment will sustain. It's a charitable organization, endowed by billionaire New Yorkers.

The story here is the same as the repeating story in corporate boardrooms everywhere, if the corporate mindset wants to save some money, the first place they look is to the people who do the work. Cut their pay, cut their health benefits, cut their supposedly guaranteed pensions.

The Met Opera general manager, Gelb, mismanaged a budget of 327 million dollars and ended up 2.8 million in the red. What to do? Cut the workers.

Cut the workers. Don't fix the mismanagement, just cut the workers.

Or as Lowry calls it, 'union grubbiness'.

Did Lowry mention Gelb makes about 1.4 million a year?

The claim that supposedly high salaries and overtime are to blame for the Met’s crisis is aimed at whipping up divisions within the working class. Just as allegedly high-paid and inadequate teachers are blamed for the crisis in public education, and the pensions of public employees are blamed for the fiscal crises of states and municipalities, so the finger is pointed at the opera musicians, choristers and stagehands. And this means that a further precedent will be set for attacks on every section of workers.

Of course the wealthy billionaire members of the Met board and their friends and business associates could cover the fiscal problems of the opera company many times over and never even notice it.

Yeah, union grubbiness is all you need to hear. Must keep the billionaires protected at all costs. Cut those workers. Condemn the unions.

Good work Lowry, you ideological tool.

The Clarion ought to be ashamed they give space to Lowry. Clarion employees ought to take notice of the mindset of their management.

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